Bear Hunting in Alaska: The Mountain Grizzly

A Three-Year Solo Quest for the King of the Mountains

Article and Photos by Field Staff Writer J. McFarland

It was mid September in the high alpine mountains of Alaska’s remote interior and I laid frozen in a blueberry patch, watching over a giant grizzly grazing across the ravine. My heart felt as though it would pound out of my chest. The excitement was not from fear, nor how close the bear was, but because I recognized the bear’s unique blonde coloration and impressive size from previous years.  In the past I had only found tracks or caught glimpses of the great bruin as it slipped into the forest.  Until today, I never had an opportunity to close the distance.  Now the bear was upwind, distracted while intently gorging on blueberries, and in an ideal location to stalk.  My only dilemma was that I had already drawn a coveted brown bear tag for Kodiak Island later that fall and was only allowed one grizzly/brown bear per year.  The memory of reluctantly walking away from the big bear will forever be seared in my mind.

Bears are creatures of habit and the next fall I hoped that I could intercept the bruin again.  I timed the hunt for the first week of September, when the first few cold snaps of the year trigger bears into an intense feeding frenzy called hyperphagia.  This is essentially when bears realize they have only a short period remaining before their long eight-month hibernation and therefore spend the majority of their days and nights actively feeding.  During this time of year the beautiful fall colors are at their best, snow blankets the rugged peaks, and blueberries, the mountain grizzlies’ most sought after autumn food source, occur in great abundance.

I hit the trail with a week’s worth of gear and food.  The birch and poplar forest were splashed with the yellows and reds of fall.  As elevation increased the white spruce and poplar forest transitioned to highland alders and dwarf birch.  Continuing upward, the thick shrubbery eventually gave way to open alpine tundra, which was dominated by a striking mosaic of white, green, yellow, and red colored lichens and low-lying shrubs.  Of the shrubs, I happily noticed the blueberry crop was exceptional.  In fact, there were consistent patches the size of football fields scattered across the landscape that appeared as if they had been painted purple from the sheer mass of berries.

The alpine tundra in early September is simply beautiful
Alpine tundra in early September is simply beautiful

During the ascent, dense fog engulfed a high mountain perch overlooking several berry-rich glacial valleys where I had spotted the grizzly before.  From experience, I knew I needed to be at the lookout when the fog broke.  Numbly, I pushed upward through the blinding white blanket.  Upon summiting, I discovered that the steady wind blew holes in the fog, offering brief glimpses into the valleys bellow.  Through one of the holes I could see many large and dark boulders littered across the landscape and for an instant what I thought to be a bear.  Time passed and so did the berries within arm’s reach.

Blueberries in alpine tundra
The impressive abundance of blueberries across the landscape is irresistible for bears (and me!).

After hours of shivering in the thick, cold fog a hole finally opened.  The mysterious shape I had briefly spotted was moving.  It was a bear, a big bear.  I realized in disbelief that it was the grizzly I had been after for three years now.  He was again feeding on blueberries in the same high valley and looked bigger than ever.  The stalk was on.

The fog turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it revealed a counter-intuitive wind pattern. Like an eddy in a river, blowing fog swirled around a large mountain, which in effect blew the opposite of the true wind direction, straight up the valley toward the bear.  When stalking an animal that can smell seven times greater than a bloodhound, this was critical information and meant I had to skirt an additional mile around the mountain to remain clear of his nose.

Camping in Alaska Grizzly country

300 yards from the bear I left my pack behind and took only my rifle and three extra bullets stuffed in my boots so that they wouldn’t clink together.  I belly crawled boulder to boulder until I was within 100 yards of the bear.  Even then I did not have a clear shot.  I had to get closer.  Inching forward on my stomach I made it to 60 yards.  I was so close I could hear the bear breathing as he voraciously stripped berries off the plants.  My heart was pounding so loud against my scratchy rain coat that I feared the bear would hear it.  Finally the great bruin stepped in the right direction.  I squeezed off a fifty-yard broadside shot.  The bear roared and frantically spun around looking for what had struck it.  I put another insurance round in him before he dropped.

After hundreds of hours, countless miles, and a lot of sweat, I finally connected with the mountain grizzly I had been after for over three years.
After hundreds of hours, countless miles, and a lot of sweat, I finally connected with the mountain grizzly I had been after for over three years.

Walking up to the big grizzly I was taken by his great size.  The massive head and body were impossible for me to move.  Broken teeth and scars on the head told stories of rough times from the past.  Running my fingers through the thick and beautiful blonde tipped fur I felt a deep sense of respect for such a grand and hard earned animal.

Big paws with purple stained pads from walking through blueberry patches.
Big paws with purple stained pads from walking through blueberry patches.

As the evening light faded into night, fog was replaced by clear skies full of dancing northern lights which illuminated the surrounding snow covered mountains and glaciers.  It was almost as if the lights were saying one last prayer over the bear as I skinned and quartered him late into the frosty night.

The next morning the surrounding mountain peaks peered out of the lingering fog and the day was going to be unusually sunny and clear.  I spent the crisp morning fleshing the now frozen hide, taking extra time removing every ounce of fat and tissue to reduce weight.  Considering that a big grizzly hide can push 100 pounds, I knew that packing it and all my gear, the skull, and meat out of the mountains would be a humbling experience to say the least.

I took this picture in the morning while starting the pack out. By the time I made it back to the truck late that night I could hardly walk, often collapsing from exhaustion. Regardless of how good of mental or physical shape you are in, big mountain pack outs will strip you down raw to your inner core - exposing all weaknesses and strengths.
I took this picture in the morning while starting the pack out. By the time I made it back to the truck late that night I could hardly walk, often collapsing from exhaustion. Regardless of how good of mental or physical shape you are in, big mountain pack outs will strip you down raw to your inner core – exposing all weaknesses and strengths.

 

The bear ended up squaring just over eight feet and skull measured less than an inch from making Boone and Crockett.  Despite being just shy of the record books, the tremendous amount of work, sweat, and time invested towards hunting that bear over the course of several years was overwhelming.  I’ve learned that hunting is not about the trophy quality of an animal, but instead the experiences that shape each hunt and resulting memories that last a lifetime.

Mountain grizzlies are as tasty as any game, especially when their diet comprises almost entirely of blueberries. Pictured are homemade grizzly brats fresh out of the smoker.
Mountain grizzlies are as tasty as any game, especially when their diet comprises almost entirely of blueberries. Pictured are homemade grizzly brats fresh out of the smoker.

 

Read more of J. McFarland’s adventures!
Kings On the Fly: Fishing for Alaska’s Most Sought After Salmon
Goats, God, Sweat, Snow and a Thorn: Hunting late season Mountain Goats in Alaska
The Ghost of Mystery Bay: Hunting A Giant Brown Bear on Kodiak Island, Alaska, Part 1

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